The Engines of NASA 515 - the 737 Prototype

Bob Bogash        

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The Story of the Engines on PA099 - NASA 515
The Boeing 737 Prototype Airplane

Sunday, March 26, 1967, was a fine sunny day. The smell of Spring was definitely in the air after a dreary, but typical Northwest winter. It was warmish - and, it was Easter. The day found me sitting in the cockpit of the Boeing 737 Prototype airplane on the Flight Line of Boeing's Flight Center on Boeing Field. Sitting with me was Sid Kent. Sid was an engineer from Powerplant Staff. He was a smallish, very energetic guy - older than me, but very much like me in his energy level and enthusiasm. It was an important day in the history of the 737 program; her engines were to be started for the very first time.

As a young Boeing engineer, I had been hired into the Commercial Pubs group, writing system procedures for customer airlines maintenance and operating personnel. Our group was divided by ATA (Air Transport Assn) Chapters, which provided a uniform framework for all manufacturers to provide tech data to the airlines. My assigned Chapters were 28 (Fuel), 49 (Auxiliary Power), and 71-82 (Powerplant.)  Writing Maintenance Manuals and Ops Manuals was not very glamorous for a young buck who wanted to be a Test Pilot, but it worked out and everyone has to start somewhere.

Sid wrote the Functional Test document for Powerplant, intended for Boeing internal use, and I converted that into ATA compatible manual sections for pilots, mechanics, and engineers. We had worked together closely.

Starting about August 1966, I had been assigned to follow the Number One airplane (PA099) through it's final assembly in Plant II until its Certification, scheduled for December 1967, after which I would follow newly delivered airplanes into Service as a Field, or Tech Rep.

In September 66, the airplane was rolled out of the Plant II hangar doors, where so many previous historic airplanes had made their entrance into the fresh air outside the factory, including B-17s, B-47s, and B-52s. On the ramp right in front of the hangar doors, the vertical fin - too tall from the factory - was installed. So were the engines.


The airplane was then towed down to the new factory Boeing had built for the 737 - called the Thompson Site - about 1 mile further south. It was named for a Boeing factory worker who owned the property and was "induced" to sell it to Boeing, after a long hold-out.

In December 1966, it was taken temporarily to a new paint hangar that had been built for the 737 on Boeing Field, and then returned to the factory for a formal Rollout ceremony in January 1967.

After rollout, the airplane was moved north again to the Flight Center (aka B-52 hangar), for 3 months of final equipment installations and checkout. With fuel systems having received the "treatment", the airplane was ready for the next crucial and exciting step - engine run. Enter myself and Sid Kent.

With big roll-around protective screens in front of the engines, we carefully and deliberately went through the Pre-Start checklists. There were about a dozen people standing in the front of the airplane cabin watching. With not much fanfare, first one engine was started and then the other. It was pretty routine, actually, not much different than a 707 or 727. But, it was an historic moment, especially in the life of an airplane, which was in the process of getting born. Becoming alive. And especially the very first of a new breed. Now she shook in her chocks and made noise and powered up her systems internally, and not from external power sources, as she transitioned into the living, breathing creature that an airplane really is.

We spent many hours that day - finally doing four engine runs. The initial run was a basic checkout, not only of the engines but also of the pneumatic, electrical, fuel, and hydraulic systems. Also testing the thrust reversers. Then, concentrating on the engines themselves, we did high power runs, slam accels, and finally a full Trim run (where the engine is tweaked to provide specified performance and synchronized with thrust lever (throttle) angles and positions.

At the end of the day, we turned the airplane over to Flight Test. Now, the pilots could begin to get the feel for the airplane, doing taxi tests and higher and higher speed runs down the runway before the First Flight.

Two weeks later, on April 9, Boeing Test Pilots Brien Wygle and Lew Wallick took the airplane up for its First Flight. Later joined by 5 other test airplanes, the airplane received its FAA Certification on December 15, 1967.

After additional test flying for Boeing, and a period in storage (when it was threatened with scrapping), the airplane was sold to NASA July 26, 1973, for their use as a test airplane.

Fast Forward - after 24 years in service with NASA, the airplane was donated ("placed", since the government doesn't "donate" airplanes, they "loan" them) to the Museum of Flight in Seattle. The Museum, on Boeing Field, was the perfect spot - being the original Home for the airplane - having been built and making its First Flight from that historic airfield. It was September 1997.

Because the Museum had no place to store or display the airplane at that time, it was flown to Moses Lake, Washington for interim storage. At that time, I took on custodianship of the plane as Crew Chief, making about 160 trips to maintain and restore it for eventual display at the Museum proper. Made over 100 high speed runs down the long runway there, with many helpers - including both Brien Wygle and Lew Wallick. Finally, after 6 years (and one day), the airplane was ready to make her Final Flight - 36 years after her First Flight.

Sunday, September 21, 2003 was the date selected - yet another Sunday - and another beautiful day. Initially, Boeing was to provide flight crew, insurance, and maintenance support for the airplane, but half-way through its Moses Lake sojourn, abruptly bailed out of any activities associated with the airplane. But, they did ultimately allow the airplane to be stored on their flight line for some short period (about 2 months.) I was on my own, but managed to successfully fill all the voids they left. Alaska Airlines became my parts supplier, Japan Air Lines became my maintenance facility at MWH, and Columbia Pacific Aviation (Jeff Akridge) became my FBO.  NASA agreed to cover the Insurance.

Having lived and grown up in "the Boeing System", especially vis-a-vis the Flight Line system, I initiated a series of meetings with all Boeing functions - Flight Line, Liaison Engineering, Security, Fire Department etc, in anticipation of the "problems" that might arise and desirous of avoiding any "situations." All the "i's" were dotted, and all the "t's" were crossed. Or were they? This was "Boeing" and well I knew the "system." Too well......

One issue that arose was the matter of fuel. I had performed the flight planning for the flight, which entailed an unpressurized flight with the gear down at 8500 feet and was planned for 33 minutes. And - it was performed in 33 minutes! I uploaded new jet fuel in Moses Lake so as to allow us to arrive at Boeing Field with 6000 lbs remaining - 3000 lbs per side. What to do with the remaining fuel after arrival? A simple answer (there are NO simple answers with Boeing) was to defuel the airplane on arrival. Boeing routinely fueled and defueled airplanes on the Flight Line. But they declined, mumbling something about not wanting to "contaminate" their fuel supplies. Even though this was brand new jet fuel just loaded the very day of the flight. Still, they refused.

So, what to do? When I made the last flight of the 727 Prototype in March 2016, I was now a little wiser, and sold the fuel remaining (to the Snohomish County Sheriff's helicopter division). Experience is what you get from a lot of bad experience. But back in 2003 I could find no exit solution, so it was decided to burn it all off by running the engines until fuel exhaustion. A lot of noise and air pollution, but Boeing didn't care and they bought into that solution.

Now, knowing all the protocols, I had meetings with the Boeing functionaries - especially, Flight Line, Security, and the Fire Department. What about safety screens? Boeing never ran engines without personnel protection screens in front of the engines. They were on roll-around dollies. Nope. No protection screens required. Boeing made clear "it was YOUR airplane", and no screens required. OK. What about the Fire Dept? Boeing never ran engines without a fire truck on standby at the airplane. Same answer - no fire truck required. YOUR airplane. Same for a bunch of other items, like hydraulic drip trays and kitty litter absorbent (I had to replace some units - like the brake metering valve - that were loaners from Alaska Airlines.) No problem; not required. The final master meeting was on Thursday Sept. 18. What I got was a parking stall and entry steps. Everything else was on me.

At Moses Lake - Crew for the Last flight:  Mark Ranz, Dale Ranz, Bob Bogash and Brien Wygle

Making the trip to Moses Lake just to watch the last take-off
 were three legendary Boeing Test Pilots
Dick Taylor (2nd from left), Clayton Scott, and Jim Gannett (not pictured)

Short Final for Runway 31L at Boeing Field

Arrival back on the Boeing Flight Line

We flew the flight without incident and landed on Sunday afternoon. Dale Ranz was the pilot, and Brien Wygle came with us. Boeing pushed us into a parking stall and positioned a set of boarding steps. The next day, me and my super helper Steve Huemoeller (a UAL mechanic) arrived at the airplane.

With Steve Huemoeller after the Final Flight

Our plan was to remove and replace all the Alaska loaner parts and to run the fuel tanks dry. But, we first had to solve our first problem - engine start. You see, the APU had failed (as usual) just before we were to start engines in Moses Lake. Well, we had used ground equipment for the engine start in MWH, but now we were stuck with no APU and no equipment (a recurring theme during my 35 years with the 737!) I asked a bunch of Boeing people about getting an air start cart, with mostly shrugs, until finally, someone said there were a bunch of air start trucks on the north side of the Flight Center. We got in my car and cruised up there - finding 3 likely looking vehicles parked in a row. I checked out one, found the keys in the ignition. Steve climbed in and drove it back down to our airplane. Could have just as easily driven it out the plant gate and home.

We positioned the truck off the right side of the nose, hooked up the air hose, and then stumbled through starting it up (the truck's air start unit) and getting it to provide air for the start (we had no knowledge about how to run the thing - but we figured it out.) With Steve outside by the truck, I did a battery start of Nbr 2 engine. We were on the west side of the ramp on the south side, and all the while a continuous parade of Boeing vehicles passed back and forth in front of us. Could just as easily been stealing an airplane off the flight line; I'm sure they would have waved.

With Nbr 2 running, Steve shutdown the truck and joined me in the cockpit. We did a cross-bleed start of Nbr 1 engine - just like I had done in Fort Chimo back in 1969 - thirty odd years before. Living my life all over again. I was very - extremely - conscious of the fact that I was starting the engines on this great airplane for the very last time, and was savoring the moment.

We had 3000 lbs a side to burn off and with Idle power consuming little more than 1000 lbs/hour, settled in for a long morning. All the while, Boeing vehicles kept passing back and forth in front of us. Maintenance vans, police cars, fire trucks. All with little sign of recognition. After a while, the vehicles would slow down; some would stop and look at us. Maybe some were wondering what this airplane was all about and why were the engines running.   Getting impatient, I inched the throttles up a bit to increase the fuel flow to something more like 1300 lbs/hour.

We had been running for an hour or an hour and a half, when vehicles started stopping and looking at us. I knew what was coming.  After all, this was Boeing.  Finally, some guy got out of his car and motioned for me to open the door. I did - and he wanted to know "who we were and what we were doing." I told him, and further told him it had all been coordinated with all the Boeing functions in advance. What's more, we were only running the engines because Boeing refused to defuel the airplane. He listened and left.

After a while, he came back and said we couldn't run without safety cages in front of the engines and without a fire truck on standby. I told him I agreed with him, but to go talk to his bosses. I had asked for all that stuff and they had declined. He left again - for a while. But now he returned with a convoy of cars and trucks and police cars. We had been running for over 2 hours. He motioned again to open the door. This is so quintessential Boeing - all the meetings, all the Memo's, all the Coord Sheets - all recent too, and nothing. There's always some new tinhorn sheriff in town who doesn't read his mail and wants to exercise a little "authority." Man, I was glad I was outta there!

This time he was highly agitated, which only pumped my adrenaline in concert. He demanded that I shut down the engines, right now, IMMEDIATELY!!!   I told him I was sick and tired of the Boeing Bullshit - all this was coordinated in advance, but like everything else Boeing, NOTHING is ever coordinated in advance. I told him that since Boeing declined to do anything for us, telling me repeatedly that it was "my airplane", then he was on "my airplane" and told him to get off my goddam airplane and to be quick about it. I had no intention of shutting down the engines until the tanks ran dry, because I would have no way of disposing of all that jet fuel. Then I pushed him onto the ramp steps and closed the door.

There were a lot of personnel milling around in front of the airplane after that, and vehicle back and forth movements, but I didn't care. They sure couldn't fire me. They had reneged on promises of flight crew, parts and maintenance support, insurance - and now they declined fire protection and ramp services, and, of course, refused defueling the airplane. Even forced me to steal one of their air start trucks. Yet they wanted to call the shots. Eff 'em.

I had no intention of shutting down those engines until I was damn good and ready. I knew that I would be stuck with whatever fuel was remaining and that wasn't gonna happen.

Finally, after running the engines for 2 hours and 43 minutes, we were down to 50 lbs of fuel per side. I figured I could drain that out the sumps and didn't really want the engines to flame out. So, after discussing the historical significance of what I was about to do with Steve, I reached over and moved each Start Lever to Cutoff, listening to the turbines spin down. Mournfully. They knew. The engines knew. There are few things sadder than shutting down the engines on an airplane for the last time.

And, this wasn't just "an" airplane. This was the very first Boeing 737. She had many, many offspring. Boeing has delivered over 10,000 737s - and this airplane - well, she was the very first. Millions and millions of people- indeed billions - had flown in them millions and billions of miles. I had spent my whole professional life working on them - and on her specifically. Who knew, when I first began our association, that we were starting such a long time relationship? Yes, airplanes are living things. And now, I've come to the realization that she will indeed outlive me. Sobering.

1967 vs 2003.  What happened?


With no APU, and no electrical power, I reached up and switched off the Battery. Everything became dark and quiet. The airplane, so recently alive, with lots of lights and sounds, lost her soul. A new museum piece for people who will look in, but won't understand. How could they? I sat there for a long time. I had a 37 year history with this machine - this airplane. From assembling the body sections in Plant II, rolling it out, installing the engines for the first time, moving it to the Thompson Site, watching its First Flight, doing over 100 high speeds in Moses Lake, and participating in its Last Flight. 

But, especially, I knew that I had started her engines for the very first time back on Easter Sunday 1967. And I had started her engines for the very last time only 2 hours and 43 minutes before. And now, and now I had shut down her engines for the very last time. Like turning off the life support for a human patient. Not to be taken lightly. Imagine - what are the chances that the person who started the engines for the first time would be the same person to shut them down many decades later?  Surely a minor miracle.

Only she and I knew that story. Nobody else. That had been our secret. Now, as my days grow short, I decided to share it with the world. When we had started, we were both young. Now we were both old.  But - unlike me -  she had kept her good looks.  And only one of us was going to outlive the other. And I knew who that would be. Get emotional with a machine? You bet. Have a relationship with a machine. Yes, that too. I breathed deeply and wanted to cry, while the Boeing weenies started pounding on the door. I slid open the side window and let in some fresh air. Something I needed badly.

Copyright 2021 Robert Bogash.  All Rights Reserved